Jim Baen's Universe Vol 1 Num 4: Dec 2006



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Thanks for doing your job. Jani leaned against the wall just inside the door and pressed the heels of her hands to her temples. Anyone seeing her would think she fought a headache, which was as good an excuse as any.

Get a grip. Her eyes stung. How many things had she heard over the years that should have grabbed her heart and twisted, yet hadn't?

I love you.

We're going to die here, Captain.

You're alive, Jani.

This won't hurt for long.

"Thanks." Jani opened her eyes slowly, then blinked. Despite the welling tears, they felt dry, as they often did. Gritty, as though someone had blown dust into them. I should check them, just in case. She walked to the bathroom entry and scanned the room, then checked the stalls. Empty. Not unusual. Few women worked at dock level.

Jani walked to the nearest sink and activated the tap. Savored the spill of warm water over her hands. Activated the soap, lathered, and rinsed. Counted to three, then looked in the mirror.

Her eyes stared back. Green nearly as dark as Delmen's brown, green unto black, the color of the bottom of a well.

She bent closer and examined the shiny white sclera. Still white. No gaps. No splits. Not much of anything, really. No blood vessels. No shadows. Fake white, to match the fake green. Eyes from a bottle. She reached into her pocket, held her breath as she felt for the vial of filmformer, exhaled slowly as her hand closed over it. Her shield. Her security. The one thing that allowed her to maintain a pretense of humanity.

"Hello."


Jani flinched. Straightened slowly, then turned.

The girl stood in the entry. Ten years old. Maybe twelve. Short and delicate, pale blond hair and blue eyes heightening the impression of extreme youth, as did her baggy black trousers and blue pullover.



Like she just emerged from her mother's closet. But something wasn't right. Eyes. There's something wrong with her eyes. A little too bright and opened a little too wide.

Jani could see that the girl watched her. But what does she see? Nothing in this world, if previous experience held. "Are you looking for someone?" A parent, she hoped. A guardian. Somebody responsible. "Are you lost?" She pitched her voice low, and spoke slowly.

"What's your name?" The girl cocked her head as through distracted by a distant sound. "Everyone has one."

"Ja—" Jani stopped the sound just before it emerged. "Andree Timas." She edged away from the sink, taking care to keep both hands open and visible. "I work here."

"Andy." The girl bounded forward and grabbed Jani's left hand. "Andy, are you handy?"

Jani fought the urge to pull back, and managed to remain still as the girl squeezed her hand, then shook it, two hard pumps that rattled up her arm. Is she trying to hurt me? Jani couldn't tell. She could detect pressure with her left arm and hand, but not pain. Same with her left leg. My old war wounds. They complicated her life at the damnedest times.

"I'm Annalise Couvier." The girl smiled, teeth dead white in the harsh lighting. Then she dropped Jani's hand as though it burned, wheeled, and darted out of the bathroom, through the locker area and out the door.

"Shit." Jani bolted after her, pushing through the gaps in sliding panels and triggering safety alarms. More bleating, cut off in midyap as she freed herself and broke through into the hallway.

The empty hallway.

"Where the hell—?" Jani stilled. Listened for the pound of shoes against hard flooring, a cry or a shout.

"If you don't stop playing around, I'm going to report you."

Jani spun toward the voice. It belonged to an older woman, a clerk for one of the other shippers. Sour face and a tatty coverall in clashing shades of brown. "Did you see a girl run out of the locker room a few seconds before I came out?"

"All I've seen is you making an ass of yourself." The woman looked Jani up and down and sniffed. "It's all I've heard, too." She pulled herself up straight, the top of her clipped hairdo barely reaching Jani's shoulder. "Some of us have work to do." With that, she brushed past Jani and keyed into the locker room.

Jani waited a few moments more, until a door at the far end of the corridor opened, and a pair of men emerged. She turned her back so they wouldn't see her face, walked to the dock entry, then stopped. She couldn't handle Royson yet. Her heart still beat slow and steady. Sounds still seemed to echo inside her head. And now . . .



Augmentation has its benefits, Lieutenant Kilian. You'll find that under conditions of panic, you will remain calm. Any wounds you suffer will heal more quickly. You will be able, under certain conditions, to exhibit controlled bursts of greater than average strength.

That had been the good news.





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